The way that Asylum manages to hold onto its psychological peaks and artistic climaxes is really quite remarkable. Unlike the last season, which mostly stuck with a pretty set formula of ghost-like scares, Asylum continues to change everything up so constantly that no one scare tactic ever grows stale. The first season was the equivalent of watching a man get shot out of a cannon 30 times in a row. This season is a full blown circus.
Much of that is the fact that we as an audience have absolutely no idea what the hell we're really up against, Not for naught is the season set in a mental institution. What is real and what is merely the product of a diseased mind is a constant question. Did aliens really attack Kit Walker (Evan Peter) or was he just a man overcome by rage that concocted an elaborate fantasy to hide his wife's murder from himself? Is Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) really possessed by the devil, or has she just found out fucking is fun and evil is addictive? We're thrashing around in the kind of frenzy that hasn't been seen since we were all asking, "Who killed Laura Palmer?"
There's a lot going on storywise this episode... the girl (Franka Potente) who believed she was Anne Frank wasn't, Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) manages to perform a lobotomy on her as revenge for her shooting him in the leg, meanwhile the maimed and mutating body of Shelley (Chloë Sevigny) that he had been experimenting on crawls out of a pit to frighten some school children in one of the most horrifying moments of the whole show.
What I want to talk about is the new twist, and beware the spoilers from this point on.
Until this episode Dr. Thredson (Zachary Quinto) has been the supposed voice of reason at Briarcliff Asylum. He insists on using science to treat his patients instead of corporal punishment and prayer, responds to the inmates with compassion, and in the end offers to help Lana (Sarah Paulson) escape. In short, he is the unsullied hero the show so desperately needs, and thus it is simply devastating when he is revealed to be the serial killer Bloody Face.
Lana goes to Thredson's home after they escape, and begins to sense something off about him. On a trip to the bathroom, she discovers a room full of human remains that he turns into furniture, and he happily confesses to his gruesome hobby before dropping her down into a Saw-esque room containing her dead girlfriend.
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It's a revelation that I think we can all say we didn't see coming. On the surface it's trite. Really? Another psychiatrist is secretly a horrific but urbane serial killer? Hasn't the world over-indulged on the gentlemen monsters like Hannibal Lecter?
Perhaps, but so far Asylum is pulling it off beautifully. First off, Quinto plays the role to the hilt, never once dissolving into a caricature of evil. Instead, he maintains his medical training candor, kind bedside manner, and soft tones even while donning the dead skin mask that is his calling card.
The wider implication though is how on Earth this ties us in with the modern front story that's been absent the last two episodes. Bloody Face is still active in Briarcliff more than half a century later, and if the man behind the mask isn't Dr. Arden as I supposed, what with his bizarre medical experiments that supposedly bequeath immortality, then how on Earth is Thredson still a homicidal threat in the now?
That's the continued genius of Asylum, it's ability to take standard tropes and reconfigure them so that each one is a booby trap waiting to spring out at you when you least expect it. Each horror is its own attack, but it's also to keep you wobbly while the others creep toward you.